The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future
The Bet, a new book by Yale history professor Paul Sabin, published last month by Yale University Press, is a compelling read and an important contribution to a number of debates in our society today. It sheds light on the “population explosion,” resource constraints, and global climate change by telling an intriguing story about a bet made more than three decades ago by Paul Ehrlich (one of our contributors to Secrets of Inferno) and Julian Simon, one of Ehrlich’s prominent critics.
The book addresses various theories, ideas, and attitudes about the future of the world’s population and the survivability of the human species. Back in the 1970s, Ehrlich was well known for his deep concern about humanity’s ability to do what he perceived the right thing to be and prevent the world’s population from exploding to a level that would create extreme competition for resources. Ehrlich foresaw mass starvation, disease, and ultimately a course that could lead to our own extinction. (Ehrlich is, if anything, even more pessimistic today, as he makes clear in his essay for Secrets of Inferno). Although Simon had early on in his career shared some of Ehrlich’s premises, he had now come to believe that the planet was not in danger simply from an increasing population. Simon argued that human beings will use their skills at adapting and innovating to solve the worst parts of the challenges posed by adding billions of additional citizens to the global mix.
Simon proposed a bet in 1980 that was a modest but concrete proxy for the overall debate between the two men about the human future. Seeking a quantitative approach that would have a clear answer, Simon proposed they make a decade-long bet on the rise or fall of the price of a basket of five metals. If we were moving into the kind of resource-constrained world Ehrlich imagined, the prices would theoretically skyrocket as demand outstripped supply, and Ehrlich would win. On the other hand, if Simon was right, new innovations and market forces would combine to create alternative ways to allocate these resources more efficiently. The prices would fall, and Simon would win. A decade later, Simon had won.
The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, Sabin makes clear that in and of itself, the outcome of the bet, clear and quantitative as it was, does not tell us much about how humanity will fare as global population heads from today’s 7 billion to an anticipated 10 billion by the end of the century. This outcome ended up having more to do with changing technology, changing regulation, declining use of industrial metals, and many other factors. Just because the price of these metals did not skyrocket in that decade, doesn’t mean that we are succeeding in adapting to the challenges created by global climate change, for example.
Nevertheless, Simon’s victory did pose a major question mark about some of the ideas espoused by Ehrlich and others that increasing population automatically and axiomatically leads to resource constraints, human suffering, and peril for the planet. Dan Brown’s fictional villain, Bertrand Zobrist, would have done well to read The Bet prior to his release of the sterilizing virus and his own suicide. Robert Langdon, Sienna Brooks, and Elizabeth Sinskey, Brown’s other fictional characters who all seemingly pledge themselves to find ways to fight global population growth by the end of Inferno, should also take a look at this new book from Paul Sabin. Despite their vaunted brainpower (Sienna is said to have an IQ of 208; Langdon is supposed to be one of the world’s most brilliant professors; Sinskey is allegedly an accomplished medical doctor and director of the World Health Organization), they all need much more nuance and complexity in their thinking. Sabin’s The Bet brings together four decades of evidence, facts, and debate about the future of the Earth and its people, all told through the compelling narrative of this landmark bet between these two very different thinkers. It is a very valuable tool in forming your own position about what the future holds—and what to do about it.